I am lucky. I am unequivocably a Jew. To prove it, I have a paper with the names and signatures of three men–Rabbis with long, white beards and thick Yiddish accents–who watched me as I sank, naked and swollen, under a sheet that separated my old life from my new one about as much as it separated my body from their view. As an African-American (and now an Afro-Amero-Israeli, gesundheit) no one believes that I was born Jewish, but it doesn’t faze me much; because I wasn’t.
But I worry for my children. I wonder if people will believe my daughter, who was born less than 72 hours after my conversion, when she says she is Jewish by birth. And I wonder if her brown skin make those she encounters expect some stamp of approval greater than her birth certificate–something which she does not have and cannot give.
Before the advent of the Internet, these issues were almost completely (if you will excuse the pun) black and white. When someone new moved into an area, they were expected to give bona fides from whence they came so that their story could be checked out prior to acceptance into the local Jewish community. Potential converts were shadowed–from their first introduction to the conversion beis din until successful post-conversion integration into the community–as a way to monitor sincerity, and also to provide the newest addition (and any descendants) with solid references.
It was a variant of the popular game “Jewish geography,” where if someone said they had converted under a certain beis din, they would be questioned subtly–and sometimes not so subtly–about people and places they should be familiar with. For instance, I’m from Detroit, so when I traveled I would get asked about Jerusalem Pizza, One Stop Kosher, and whether I knew how to sing Rabbi Cohen’s version of Chad Gadya. These are details that are very difficult to fake because they are so niche. Years later, if the convert subsequently moved to a different area and needed to reassure a future spouse or neighbor, she could always suggest they contact a former neighbor from the place the conversion was completed to serve as an advocate (e.g. “Oh yes, I remember when Sara Ruth first came to Monsburg Heights! Definitely completely kosher conversion!”)
But even though a tight-knit Jewish community can provide this type of acknowledgement and assurance, my Jewish identity–by proxy of another’s–has frequently come into question with the advent of the Internet.
Before the world was so digitally connected, people only interacted with those they saw frequently, and who were aware of their stories. We were bound by space and time. Therefore, it didn’t really matter if someone halfway around the world didn’t know if another person was Jewish. But thanks to the Internet, and particularly to that website created by Mark Zuckerberg, I have now begun interacting more frequently with the kind of armchair rabbis who feel they can determine someone’s lineage–and religious identity–from a picture on a Facebook post.
One day, while I was researching Operation Moses–the first of several rescue operations aimed at evacuating Ethiopian Jews caught in a deadly famine in 1984, and bringing them to Israel–I saw a particularly troublesome Facebook post from one of these armchair rabbis. He had posted a picture of a modern Ethiopian religious leader in Israel, and immediately cast doubts upon whether or not the man was Jewish. I commented that, based on my understanding of Don Seeman’s 1991 Tradition magazine article, “Ethnographers, Rabbis and Jewish Epistemology: The Case of the Ethiopian Jews,” the Israeli Rabbinate had already reached a halakhic consensus on this matter: the “Beta Israel,” or Ethiopian Jews, no longer needed to undergo a conversion unless specific claims were brought against an individual which would lead to doubts about his Jewish lineage.
The person I was having the virtual discussion with proceeded to give a list of reasons why he believed Ethiopians were not biologically related to the Jewish people, including DNA studies. However, to my knowledge, DNA isn’t requested when registering for marriage at the Rabbinate in Israel, who were charged with determining how to integrate Beta Israel into the Jewish family. What is required by the Rabbinate when trying to prove the degree of halakhic Jewish identity, is verification of the individual’s background, and witnesses.
The Ethiopian Jews not only had a wealth of historical proofs of lineage and tradition, which convinced Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of their authenticity–and which led to his ruling in February 1973 that they should be accorded full halakhic status–but, until the Rabbinate’s policy change in 1985, they were also required to complete a streamlined conversion process prior to being accepted as Israeli citizens. While there are Ethiopians here in Israel through the country’s historic right of return whose Jewishness has not been officially recognized, there is no way that you would be able to single out these individuals from the broader group that has been accepted as fully Jewish.
This is the problem that Jews of color face on a continual basis. Because of what we look like, many fellow Jews, like those armchair rabbis, feel they have the right to inspect, poke, and prod. But I will continue to explain that my children aren’t converts, and I will defend the honor of a people who are rarely even invited to participate in the conversations about them. This is my duty, both to educate and to fight, for as long as my skin is brown.
Related: Covering My Black, Jewish Hair